Jan 5, 2004
It’s now official. Mad cow disease has reached the U.S. This in itself may not be surprising, considering that the disease has been seen in Europe and Japan for several years already, and that Canada announced its first case last May.
What should be shocking, however, are the circumstances surrounding this case of the first American “mad cow,” in particular the studied indifference of the beef industry and government officials for public health.
The Washington state cow in question was a “downer,” that is, an animal too sick to stand up. It was slaughtered on December 9. It was not until December 22, two weeks later, that test results for this cow were announced. By that time, probably the whole animal had already been eaten by humans or other animals!
The government pretended that this meat was safe because it did not include the parts of the body, especially the brain and spinal cord, most directly infected with prions, the misshaped proteins responsible for mad cow disease. This was a lie. These officials had no way to know this, since the machines that remove the meat from the back bone often also grind in parts of the spinal cord.
It is legal in the U.S. to slaughter very sick cattle for food, even if the cause of the animal’s sickness is not known. Three times in the past three years, Congress rejected bills that would forbid meat from very sick animals to be used for human consumption.
The politicians justified this by saying that this measure is not necessary since in 1997 the government had passed a ban on feeding rendered cattle meat, brains and spinal cord byproducts to cattle. But the fact is that the government does not enforce that ban. A study done in 2002 by the Government Accounting Office found that one-fifth of American feed and rendering companies that handle prohibited material had no systems in place to prevent the contamination of cattle feed. The study also found that in Colorado, one of the top beef-producing states, more than one-quarter of feed manufacturers were not even aware of the ban.
Besides that, the common industry practice of feeding cattle products to pigs and chicken, which in turn are fed back to cattle, is known to increase the risk of spreading mad cow disease. Yet it is still legal.
Government officials claim that by allowing downed cattle to be slaughtered, they are encouraging the industry to bring out their sick animals so diseases can be detected. Of course, this is complete nonsense. There’s a very simple way to detect disease – test all the animals before they are slaughtered.
Instead, last year, the government tested only 20,500 animals in the U.S., when the government itself admits that probably at least 150,000 obviously sick animals are slaughtered each year for food. Thus, the vast majority of even these obviously sick animals are not tested!
For years, the beef industry and government officials have constantly dismissed warnings that testing of cattle in the U.S. is gravely inadequate. Of the 35 million animals slaughtered in the U.S. last year, only 20,500 animals, or one in 1700, were tested. In Europe, ALL sick animals as well as ALL those older than 30 months are now tested. In Europe, too, meat producers resisted testing – until the spread of the disease in the 1990s forced several countries to kill entire herds. After much public outcry, Japan in 2001 started testing all animals before slaughtering them. The rigorous testing in these countries has revealed many cases of mad cow, often in animals that appeared healthy – which is not surprising, considering that the incubation period of the disease can be anywhere between three to eight years in animals.
When confronted with such facts, the U.S. Agriculture Department’s chief veterinarian, Dr. Ron DeHaven, was quite blunt. He said that the testing in the U.S. was never intended to keep sick animals from reaching the public’s refrigerators in the first place. He added that Europe and Japan simply test too much, “like a doctor testing every patient who comes through the door for prostate cancer.”
In fact, that is exactly what doctors propose to do every year for men who are over 50 years old, just as they want to test every woman for breast cancer.
The government pretends their methods must guarantee safety of the food supply since no humans in this country have yet to come down with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human variant of mad cow disease. But, this is not the proof of anything, since the incubation period for humans is very long – perhaps as long as 20 years or more. Neither should we assume that people in this country have not already contracted or died from it. In fact, one obituary in the January 3 New York Times, cites the death of one person, Maxine Postel, from a disease that could have been caused by mad cow. But the New York Times ignores this in its articles covering mad cow.
What is certain is that humans do contract Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from eating beef products from cows that have mad cow disease. And veterinary science knows enough to easily stop this disease from spreading among animals and threatening human beings. Tests fast enough to allow diseased carcasses to be identified before they are cut up for food are available. Europe and Japan already use them.
If U.S. bosses and the government officials have resisted using testing every single animal before it is slaughtered, it is for one reason only: An extensive testing program could lead to the discovery of the infection of thousands or more of cattle, which would need to be destroyed. And this would seriously cut into profits of big agribusiness, as well as of the animal feed companies, the slaughter houses and rendering plants, not to mention McDonalds, Wendy’s and Burger King, and the big supermarket chains.
Government officials and politicians have already show they won’t do that – even though this could very well could condemn countless numbers of people to eventually face a horrible death from mad cow disease. But that might be 20 years from now. And capitalism protects today’s profits at the expense of the future.